WASHINGTON (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – Adding respiratory rate and suspected blunt chest injury to a trauma assessment in the field significantly improved the appropriate triaging of level III trauma patients.

When the assessment specifically evaluated for tachypnea in the setting of blunt chest injury, undertriaging improved by 1.2%, John Yonge, MD, said at the annual clinical congress of the American College of Surgeons.

“When we applied this new criteria to our 10-year study, we identified 661 patients who should have been activated as a level I or level II,” but instead were assessed as less critically injured, Dr. Yonge said in an interview. This initial misstep significantly extended the time before patients could have critical surgical procedures and was related to higher mortality among them.

Dr. Yonge, a surgical fellow at Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, and his mentor Martin Schreiber, MD, conducted the retrospective study of 7,880 trauma patients admitted at level III activation from 2004 to 2014. The OHSU trauma system has three activation levels.

• Level I activations are reserved for the most critically injured patients; attending trauma surgeon and anesthesiologist presence is mandatory.

• Level II activations capture moderate to severe injuries; trauma surgeon and respiratory therapist presence is mandated.

• Level III activations are designed to capture patients who do not require an immediate lifesaving intervention; the presence of the trauma surgery chief resident and attending emergency medicine physician is mandatory.

Patients were considered undertriaged if they were admitted as level III activations, but then required a critical intervention (chest tube placement, intubation, needle thoracostomy, or intracranial pressure monitoring) in the emergency department or ultimately met level I or II activation criteria.

Among all the level III patients, 466 (6%) were undertriaged: 390 were undertriaged based on the existing level I or II activation criteria, and 76 were considered undertriaged based on the need for a critical intervention.

Most of the undertriaged patients (65%) met criteria for level I activation; the rest should have been triaged as level II patients. Compared with appropriately staged level III patients, mortality among the undertriaged patients was significantly higher (3.2% vs. 0.6%). Undertriaged patients also experienced longer delays before initiation of major emergency surgery: a mean of 147 minutes, compared with 106 minutes for appropriately triaged level I patients and 62 minutes for appropriately triaged level II patients.

Dr. Yonge then looked for clinical measures that would improve triage. Tachypnea (respiratory rate of more than 20 breaths per minute) in the field stood out as a significant factor. Tachypneic patients who had a suspected chest injury were 70% more likely to be undertriaged than were those with a normal respiratory rate. Tachypnea was significantly associated with a diagnosis of flail chest, emergency department intubation, and chest tube placement.

The team then constructed a new triage criterion for patients with suspected chest injury – tachypnea combined with suspected blunt thoracic injury. By applying that model to their study population of level III patients, they determined that the level III undertriage rate would be reduced by 1.2%.

Tying the physiologic marker of tachypnea to a suspected clinical diagnosis is a key factor, Dr. Yonge noted. “Just adding tachypnea doesn’t help us. In fact, it would overwhelm us, because a trauma patient could very well be tachypneic because he’s experiencing panic. But tying it to a suspected clinical diagnosis gives us a meaningful result.”

He confirmed this linkage with an additional analysis. “We looked to see how severely injured these patients were and found that 71% of them had an Abbreviated Injury Score (AIS) to the chest of 3 or more, indicating a severe chest injury. Only 29% had an AIS of 2 or less. So this proves that respiratory rate is a valid triage criterion and can be used to identify patients who need a higher level of trauma care.”

The challenge now, Dr. Yonge said, is incorporating the marker into clinical practice. “It doesn’t matter how many statistics you do, if you can’t educate the prehospital providers in this, it’s useless. They are the crux of the trauma system.”

Although national guidelines do recommend assessing respiratory rate as part of field triage, it often isn’t recorded or is only estimated, Dr. Yonge said. That’s one reason he used the 20-breaths-per-minute cutoff rate. “It doesn’t even take a full minute to assess this, but it can make a big improvement in care.”

Neither he nor Dr. Schreiber had any financial disclosures.

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